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ausgabe #64. rezension. evelyn schalk. übersetzung: mark kanak

kill city


From the very first moment, Ash Thayer’s photographs draw the observer into their orbit. Thayer’s pictures are powerful, and direct—and radically delicate. They touch and fascinate the viewer, in equal measure. Yet this photographer is not a bystander observing from afar, but rather herself a part of the New York Lower East Side squatting community that was active between 1992 and 2000. Her pictures, presented in the book Kill City, condense the decisiveness and intimacy, creativity and collectiveness that characterized the punk communities of the time and are thus much more than an enduring witness to an urban subculture or a bohemian lifestyle. Thayer acts and takes a position with every shot—for those that are on the fringes, don’t fit in anywhere, are contrarians.

The experience of not fitting in anywhere is something the photographer became quite aware of herself, at quite an early age, as a young art student who couldn’t afford the horrible New York rents. What she ultimately found was the openness, warmth and space in the New York squatting scene that she had been missing for so long, in many respects. “The punk community taught me that I could take the pain and rage I felt and do something productive with it, involving social activism, music, and artistic expression,” she says. And in fact her photographs demonstrate a sensuality on all levels, a physicality, a physical presence, a becoming one with the buildings, the city—all that actually comprises this, beneath the surface. The pictures depict those people that try to find their niche between the underground and a radical visual presence in this surrendered no-man’s-land of a society in which only profit counts, and big business threatens to displace everything and everyone at any time.

The Power of Powerlessness

It is these, the ones who demand tribute instead of meekly complying, not sheepishly submitting, but rather loud and proud, the ones who insist on being heard, seen, acknowledged and simultaneously on being left alone like anyone else, too, who vehemently articulate their rights and needs, and hope to avoid being pigeonholed through their radicality. Making clear, political statements, without hesitation, emphatically, on the streets, in the houses and courtyards of the city. No lifestyle choice, but rather an uncompromising expression of their own positions. The stakes are high, this attempt at an intractable utopia, building something, a house, a community, a place in and around life, all from that which the city has dumped in the trash. “Together, my fellow squatters and I crafted a life out of New York City’s throwaways.” It’s not about the concept or blueprint of it all, but much more than that, about survival itself—not only for oneself, but for all those participating. Far too much risk to be easily consumable. Who ever doesn’t kill power is killed by it! is scrawled on one of the photographs on the wall behind a row of standing bottles of piss that served as replacements for missing toilets in the ice-cold New York winters. The quote, from the French situationists from the 1960s on an inside wall of a dilapidated house in Manhattan in the 1990s, seems to apply quite fittingly….

famous, pregnant and building windows, seventh street squat, 1994
Famous, Pregnant and Building Windows, Seventh Street Squat, 1994

A Utopia constructed for real

Filth, debris, rats—not as relates to house pets, but rather to pestilence and decay. Construction work is one of the main tasks required to make squatted buildings somewhat inhabitable. Construction work that is also the work of building up, construction in the sense of building the “structure”, or structuring, the moment of renovation work. Just in the knowledge that much of this will not last for long, cannot last for long; but what is lasting, and how long? The threat of forced eviction was an everpresent daily reality, right on the doorstep of the squatted building. “We all, as a community, and with support from some of our neighbors, fought like hell to keep them.” The common struggle for the utopia of a changed society wherein every individual has a place to inhabit, in which to live, equally entitled, regardless of appearance, sex, or sexual orientation. In buildings that are alive and people look after them, and each other, instead of degrading entire cities and, along with them, people, to nothing more than objects of speculation. To undermine them, let them fall into disrepair and decay, to make a profit from ruins. This struggle is carried on, and forward, through Thayer´s pictures. “The images of the buildings are portraits, too. We knew every inch of them, every strength and weakness, every secret nook and cranny. We raised them up as they sheltered and protected us. We devoted ourselves to protecting them and everyone inside.” Instead of a capitalistic principle pitting everyone against everyone else, why not have a situation based on community, on sharing, of working together and with each other, of self-understanding? The direct action of the doing, not later, not sometime in the future, not whenever, but now. Born from necessity and out of despair, but above all from the unconditional will to “just do it”, and the fury about how things are, and the way things are done. But also borne of helplessness, loneliness, all these experiences coming from seeing things from the edge of society, looking in at an egoistic, greedy, pitiless ruling center. “I had a front row seat from which to observe the ways the media selectively covered our stories and events, leaving out crucial information and falsifying our history,” she says. On the other hand, Ash Thayer has her own, circumspect view of things.

Vulnerable, yet radical strength

Her pictures are beautiful, sad—and courageous, in the admittance of vulnerability, and the depiction of it. Yet through it all, the camera is never intrusive in the process, her depictions never become injuring. The exceptionally sensible emotional sensitivity of the photographer in dealing with extreme openness allows her to express the personal trust that has been accumulated in the time spent together also in her images, or even to create them just on this basis.

jen (on bed), fifth street squat, 1995
 Jen (on Bed), Fifth Street Squat, 1995

Thayer´s attitude to the less-than-perfect, or non-perfect, is also truly evident in conveying all the ambivalences and fragilities of this squat scene. And with respect to the strong attempt to express it, in spite of this, or even in some senses precisely because of it, this attempt to resist the effort to adapt which always is required by people, the compelling need to change, to fit in. Instead of all that, it is much more about changing the surrounding conditions, and the squatters do so, brick by brick, cable by cable, piece by piece.
Sad, because so much of all this no longer exists, so many have long since gone and the conditions have been altered somewhat, but not really changed. The necessity of resisting is conversely greater than ever, the readiness to be radical has however disappeared with those that came before, while the inclination to arrange things and quietly stand by the wayside has crept in.

jason, fifth street squat, 1994
 Jason, Fifth Street Squat, 1994

Out of the boxes—Eyes, Ears, Deeds

Kill City—who´s killing whom, the city the people the pictures the observers? The image as a weapon, the deeds of the eyes. Thayer knows the contradictions and doesn´t attempt to smooth them over, to make them conform, no, much to the contrary; her pictures are loud and quiet, replete with polarities, sometimes one thing is in the foreground, sometimes something else. There’s pain inherent in every tattoo, but also the pain of expression without concealing it. The provocation inherent in it is that of resistance, of visibility.

Given the way that punk fashion is trotted out on metropolis catwalks these days and every conservative hipster decorates his body with tattoos, the difference between now and then could not be more brutally obvious. With the conformist emphasis on the individual, the sense of community or collectiveness is disappearing completely and in its place is inserted the market paradigm according to which everything is geared to being and appearances. The erstwhile signs of those that are on the periphery have long since gone, their sharp edges and angles being ground smooth and incorporated into the machine of an unchanging, safe mainstream, fully fit for the front page of any magazine, and highly profitable.

Those who emphasized the collective idea and achieved a common spirit back then, on the other hand, could not have been more varied and individual personalities, and this is evident from Thayer´s pictures. No thought of authenticity as a bonus in your portfolio—it was lived—no, not simply, not easy, but unquestionably lived.

“I didn’t have the time or resources to dream up and set up an alternate reality because I was living in the middle of one!” said Thayer. The music of those years rings through in the pictures, so too the vibrating pulse of the spontaneous parties and jam sessions…but equally so in the delicate soundtracks, as if they were relating intimate moments of everyday life. Their strength is rooted in this daily routine. Those things that were so completely outside the realm of the typical and fell and falls into the world of the unimaginable becomes, in the best sense, observable, not least of all through the depiction of daily tasks and how they in some ways are not at all and in others completely different from routines in non-occupied homes. The basic needs of all people are the same. The possibilities of fulfilling them, however, diverge in a much deeper and fragmented way than in any other in the concrete jungle of the Lower East Side. No glamor, and not a hipster in sight. Ultimately, the photographs come to be as a result of the necessity of documenting it all, to depict the work being done there, in part to aid in the legal battles to fight evictions. Nevertheless, the pictures are lovely, but without attempting to create some aesthetic or beautification of the environment in the process. They convey a richness of details wherein one gets lost in observation and simultaneously an idea of this life that communicate people´s movements as seen in the photographs.

maria and violin in serenity house stairwell, 1997
Maria and Violin in Serenity House Stairwell, 1997

Ideas that now as before are greeted with ignorance and prejudice or simply were avoided altogether, are destroyed. Inevitably, the pictures of the forced eviction of the Pizzeria Anarchia in Vienna last fall, which coincidentally happened at nearly the same time as the publication of Kill City, are still fresh in the memory. The accompanying scenes, reminiscent more of a civil war than of a civil action, including 1700 police officers against 19 squatters, with tanks, barricaded streets, live aerial coverage and the like, is certainly quite difficult to forget. But then there´s also Pankahytnn, Wagenplatz and EKH, even the recently squatted houses in Graz´s Annenstrasse and Münzengrabenstrasse, these too come to mind as examples from the past few years, and it’s the same thing over and over, stark pictures reflecting the battle for empty spaces.

“There were no restrictions on fun and we were only limited by our imaginations,”
writes Thayer in her personal memoir. And the photographs in Kill City are also a vision for future generations, a living plea for courage, and resistance.

by Evelyn Schalk
Translated by Mark Kanak

Ash Thayer: Kill City, Lower East Side Squatters 1992-2000 
powerHouse Books 2015, NY.

Text in German...

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